When Ida flooded the Vine Street Expressway — a sight we hope to never see again

Many Philadelphians are still struggling to recover.

The Schuylkil River crested at more than 16 feet, and poured into I-676

The Schuylkil River crested at more than 16 feet, and poured into I-676

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept into Philadelphia at the beginning of September 2021, few realized how much damage the storm would wreak.

At least five tornadoes touched down in Pennsylvania, but most of the destruction in Philly came from flooding. Over 43k Philadelphians received FEMA aid, but the $47 million distributed was only a stop gap. Homeowners across the region are still fighting to get back on their feet as they battle insurance agencies for reimbursements. The same goes for small businesses, especially those in the riverside neighborhoods of Manayunk and East Falls.

All this wouldn’t become apparent until the days, weeks, and months after the calamity. The most striking sight on that end-of-summer day one year ago — and the phenomenon that received immediate national attention — was the flooded highway in the middle of the city.

Torrents of rain caused the Schuylkill River to breach its banks, overflowing into the surrounding area and basically turning the Vine Street Expressway into a river.

The river storm surge of 16.35 feet was the highest recorded since 1869, according to the National Weather Service, when the “Saxby Gale” hurricane caused a crest of 17 feet. That was long before I-676 was controversially constructed, cutting a trench through the heart of the city. The expressway had partially flooded before, with mudslides shutting down part of the roadway in 2004, but it was nothing like this.

Ida’s overflow poured over the river’s edge as it curves around Boathouse Row and poured into the highway as it climbs back up to meet I-76, filling it up so water levels nearly touched the signage on the overpasses.

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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

PennDOT and city officials said the failure of a major pumping station was to blame. They worked around the clock, and succeeded in clearing the roadway in time for the Made in America festival, which brings tens of thousands to the Ben Franklin Parkway right next to the expressway. Homeowners weren’t all so lucky, as many drains remained clogged by the city’s pervasive litter.

Before the water was cleared, some Philadelphians decided to take advantage of the impromptu river.

At least one person pulled out a raft and went tubing down the highway. One person (the guy famous for his dumpster pool party) even did a backflip off an overpass, prompting city officials to warn people not to swim in the brown water, and get a tetanus shot if they had.

Here’s a look back at what the flooded Vine Street Expressway looked like — a sight everyone will be glad never to see again.

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Looking west over Center City

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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The Amtrak rail yards were underwater

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Buildings next to the riverbank were completely surrounded

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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The Schuylkill Boardwalk was barely visible, with only solar panels above water level

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Intrepid explorers descended a staircase that usually leads to the Schuylkill River Trail

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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The Free Library's Parkway Central Branch almost had a moat

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Looking east from the Art Museum

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

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